Ask any family court judge or clerk what the most rewarding part of their job is, and they’ll almost certainly say it’s the day they get to grant an adoption. Adoption days are one of the few days where the parties linger after the decision is finalized to snap pictures with the presiding judge. So many adoptive parents look forward to their day in court with excitement, and the mood is understandably jubilant and celebratory.
Our story is a little different.
The question of “second parent adoption” comes up a lot in our queer parenting group. Any LGBTQ+-savvy family law attorney will recommend one, but we still had to explain to friends, family, and co-workers why we, as a married couple who had planned for and conceived our child together, lived together, and clearly shared in the parenting duties, had to go through an adoption, especially when my wife was already on our son’s birth certificate.
In order to be definitively recognized as a legal parent to the child my wife had been parenting since the moment he was born, she had to get a background check and child abuse clearance from every state she’d lived in for the past 5 years (that’s 4 states, one of which refused to release her clearance). She needed a letter from her doctor certifying that she is in good health. We have friends, some of whom are parents, who are battling cancer, lupus, depression — what if that were my wife? Would she never be able to adopt our child?
We hosted a gracious Allegheny County employee in our home for 90 minutes as she asked – and in the next breath apologized for having to ask – deeply personal questions about how we met, what our families thought of our wedding, how much we paid on our mortgage every month, who took out the garbage. She did a cursory sweep of our house to ensure our home was a safe place for our son, and I was terrified she would see something or I would say something that would prevent the adoption from going through.
All this before we set foot in the family courtroom where we were assured our adoption would be approved. There was so much emotion in that moment for me. There was anger. Frustration. Disbelief. Paralyzing fear. The last time I had been in a courtroom, I had spent hours testifying against a man who sexually assaulted me while we were both on active duty in the Air Force, and stood just long enough to hear the “not guilty” verdict before I collapsed in a blind rage. That’s precisely where my mind took me back to in the moments before I walked into the courtroom on what was supposed to be one of the happiest days of my life, when we would finally become a legally-recognized family.
I pulled my wife aside and told her I didn’t think I could handle it all. She told me to look around. With tears in my eyes, sobbing uncontrollably, I did. And I saw our village. I saw the steadfast, unwavering love of my wife and the unadulterated and joyful, pure love of our son. I felt the support of family, of new friends and old friends, of classmates and co-workers, of neighbors, of the people we had chosen to be with us in the courthouse that day.
Then the hearing began. I knew exactly what our attorney was going to ask me. The questions were simple and straightforward, yet also so incredibly complex. First came the softballs: “What’s your name? … How old are you? … Do you consent to this adoption?” Then the whopper: “Do you feel that Haley and your son have bonded?” I’d thought about it, talked with friends about how to answer it, but I didn’t know what to say. I had so much running through my mind.
I started reflecting on the momentum of the gay rights movement, how I went – in less than 15 years – from a closeted high schooler terrified of being outed and having my life ruined to a happily married, proud queer person with a same-sex spouse who was legally adopting the child I gave birth to. How many people who came before me lived in fear, terrified that the government or an angry ex would take their child away and they would have no legal resource or standing? How many families have been torn apart by a legal system that wasn’t able to recognize parents? And how do we make sure we don’t slip back?
I began to cry. I took in a slow breath and after what seemed like hours but was probably 30 seconds, I answered. I don’t remember, exactly, what I said in response, but I know it started with “I challenge any person to describe the bond between a mother and her child, and Haley is no exception.” I hope I also made mention of how beautifully Haley handles everything parenting has thrown at her: changing dirty diapers, singing Old MacDonald on command, navigating tantrums and ER visits with equal cool.
No mother should ever have to defend her bond with her child in a court of law. I look forward to the day when second parent adoptions are a thing of the past and gay parents automatically have the same rights and recognition as our straight counterparts. But until then, I’m glad there are attorneys like Sam Hens-Greco who have been advocating for LGBTQ+ rights for the better part of his career, and progressive lawmakers being elected across the country, who together can shape the future.